October 1, 2007

Increased course requirements and exit exams are simplistic solutions destined to fail 

Contact: W. Norton Grubb – (510) 642-3488;
Jeannie Oakes – (310) 825-2494;
Teri Battaglieri – (517)293-2940;

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Several recent high-profile reports calling for the “reinvention” of the American high school are simplistic and seriously flawed, according to a new policy brief released by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The brief, “‘Restoring Value’ to the High School Diploma: The Rhetoric and Practice of Higher Standards,” is by W. Norton Grubb and Jeannie Oakes. In the brief, the authors analyzed a wave of commission reports since 2004 that attack the American high school and call, in particular, for higher state graduation requirements and for exit exams.

Grubb and Oakes conclude that this current push for “rigor” fails on several levels. The reports don’t adequately consider the likely consequences of the policies intended to enforce higher standards. They also “have little to say about how [the] imposition [of these standards] will enhance student performance.” And most discussions in these reports focus on narrow definitions of rigor—higher test scores, more demanding courses, or both—while ignoring other conceptions of rigor that may be as valid, if not more so.

The authors explain that other conceptions of rigor include: depth rather than breadth; more sophisticated levels of understanding including “higher-order skills”; and the ability to apply learning in unfamiliar settings. These conceptions are largely neglected in the new “high standards” commission reports. In addition, while the reports stress “college and workplace readiness,” very few offer strategies that link to the workplace.

The commission reports analyzed by Grubb and Oakes have had a very real policy impact. As they note, “Recent legislation has forced the translation of rhetoric into practice. Most states have increased their graduation requirements, and half the states have adopted exit exams.”

Yet the current push to increase rigor and heighten standards is “seriously flawed,” they write, and “any gains come at the expense of other goals for high school reform, including equity, curricular relevance, and student interest.”

In place of the current approaches, Grubb and Oakes describe a clear and distinctly different alternative to the nineteenth century model of the traditional high school. They suggest that high schools offer “multiple pathways” structured around themes, some drawn from occupational areas, others drawn from broad, multidisciplinary concepts.

Such an approach would “provide room for examining the important occupational, political, and social issues of adult life in the process of teaching disciplinary subjects.” They also explain that focusing “on a single theme nurtures multiple concepts of rigor,” and “the approach distributes responsibility for standards throughout the educational community, and it provides students with the benefits of curricular choice and several routes to graduation.”

Find “’Restoring Value’ to the High School Diploma: The Rhetoric and Practice of Higher Standards,” by W. Norton Grubb and Jeannie Oaks on the web at:

About the authors:

W. Norton Grubb is an economist who holds the David Gardner Chair in Higher Education at University of California, Berkeley.

Jeanne Oaks holds the Presidential Chair in Education Equity at University of California, Los Angeles. 

The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice is to identify, develop, support, publish and widely disseminate empirically sound research on education policy and practices designed to improve the quality of public education for all students within the Great Lakes Region. 

Visit the Great Lakes Center website at: